Blue Note 2: The Album Cover Art
Chronicle Books (1998)
Everything about the Blue Note label in the late 1950s and early 1960s bespoke cool. Musicians such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Jackie McLean cut their best works there, creating the gospel / blues / bebop hybrid dubbed "hard bop." Its some of the most-loved, most accessible and highest quality jazz ever put down. It’s also among the best-recorded; engineer extraordinaire Rudy Van Gelder taped nearly every Blue Note session, capturing a natural sound that managed to be at once warm and full, tough and edgy. The Blue Note logo stood out as a mark of quality: solid state music, jazz of the best type.
Blue Note even had a cool corporate philosophy. Label founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff loved the music and its creators, and treated them with respect. Where other labels released dozens of albums based on quickie blowing sessions, Blue Note gave musicians time to rehearse, and even paid them for it. Players had a few days to prepare arrangements and practice tunes before the tapes started rolling, and the results showed it.
And topping it all off, Blue Note had those covers. Distinguished by Lions dramatic, deep shadow musician portraits and designer Reid Miles imaginative typography, Blue Notes album jackets are beloved not just by jazz fans, but by graphic artists and lovers of great design. It’s only natural that someone thought to collect some of the best Blue Note jackets and stick them in a coffee table book. That happened a few years back, when Chronicle Books put out Blue Note: The Album Cover Art, edited by Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham. Now, a second volume has been released.
Judging from the albums represented, a sequel wasn’t exactly in the works when Marsh and Callingham compiled their first book. All the best covers are in the first collection. That’s not to say volume two is a dud, just that it’s short on classic images. It’s hard to match the highlights of the first book, which included such unforgettable images as John Coltrane’s Blue Train, both volumes of Thelonious Monk’s Genius of Modern Music, Larry Young’s Unity, and Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’.
Still, there’s some nice stuff in Blue Note 2. Jimmy Smith at the Organ, for example, features the musician in a typically intense pose, hands crossed one over the other, fingers straining across the keys, summoning up what had to have been an unbelievably funky chord from his Hammond B-3. Lion’s portrait of Smith is screened in an appropriate blue, and Miles-styled title typography runs right across the middle in white all caps, straight forward and simple.
Type design dominates Art Blakey’s The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia: THE JAZZ MESSENGERS huge, in all-caps takes up the top two thirds of the jacket. Small black-and-white portraits of the individual band members fill out the bottom third.
On Curtis Fuller’s eponymous 1957 album, Lion directs his camera straight into the bell of Fullers trombone, the black hole eating up most of the cover space. The high contrast photo is screened in cyan, with Fuller’s name in large, simple white type. Like all great Blue Note covers, you cant help but pore over it. Its an image that can’t be ignored.
The best Blue Note jackets are perfect echoes of their contents: Bold, direct, dramatic, soulful, strong, just like the hard bop on the thick vinyl inside. They’re cool.
Jazz fans like to think their music of choice is above the shallow, image-mongering of pop and rock & roll. But, while it may not be everything, you’ve got to admit that image definitely does count. The best jazz musicians realized this. Think about Miles Davis’ dramatic stage posturing, Thelonious Monk’s hats, Dizzy Gillespie’s goatee and puffed up cheeks. Nowadays, jazz comes in a young package, dresses in an Armani suit, and is supposed to be good for you. The players look like college teaching assistants and their music seems an awful lot like homework. In contrast, those Blue Note reissues come on like a lot more fun – all dressed up in those incredible jackets, unashamedly hip and soulful, no need to put on airs. The covers are so well-designed, they even look good shrunk to fit a CD jewel box, though they’re best appreciated in full size.
Yes, image sells, and I think if the popular image of jazz today was half as hip as it was in Blue Notes heyday, there’d be a lot more people listening. Blue Notes images have incredible drawing power. You could sell anything with them, not just records. I dread the day when some tobacco marketer spots Hank Mobley wearing Ray-Bans and puffing a cigarette on the cover of No Room for Squares when it comes to making smoking look cool, Hank blows Joe Camel off the map.